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Start Small To Lift Big: How To Master 4 Fundamental Exercises

It’s easy to look at complex movements like dribbling a soccer ball, throwing a baseball, or handling a hockey puck and see how that took years to perfect. Athletes rehearse these movements endlessly, stick to the fundamentals, and trust that practice will improve execution in game situations. One day it finally does, but this happens over time, not overnight.

The same theory should apply to weight training. In a perfect world, we would all practice and progress safely, building the type of strength that allows us to handle heavy loads without injuries or negative compensation patterns.

Nevertheless, there’s almost always a look of befuddlement on a trainee’s face when I explain that they must first build a foundation with basic exercises. They simply don’t believe the basics will increase their arm size, build chiseled abs, or sculpt jean-busting legs. They want quick results from extreme plans like they see on television.

It sounds simple, I’ll admit, but my formula for success is this: commit to long-term training goals, and get the most out of the staple lifts like the push-up, dumbbell row, squat, and deadlift. These four are probably the most common exercises within weight training circles, and they’re included in nearly all of the programs you’ll see on this site.

Believe it or not, these exercises are enough to put you on the road to physique of your dreams, if you do them right. However, despite their popularity, they’re very technical movements that can be easy to butcher.

It’s easy to attribute technique flaws to a lack of mobility, but here’s what that excuse overlooks: Most exercises are corrective in nature and relatively easy to master, provided you take the time to progress through them and learn them properly.

Let’s go upstream and solve these problems before they start! Here’s what I see going wrong with the way most people perform the four fundamental lifts, and how you can perform them to get the most bang for your buck in the gym.

Exercise 1

Many push-up issues start when people focus on what muscle groups the push-up “works.” If you’re thinking all about chest, arms, and shoulders, you’ll forget to keep the rest of the body tense and stable. This should be a full-body lift!

Make sure your hips and shoulders are lined up your arms and are in the best position to develop true pressing strength. This will help you build the most force at the bottom push-up position.

Push-Up Fixes
Watch The Video – 02:06

Push-up coaching points
  • Squeeze your glutes and abs to lock your hips to your core.
  • Keep your arm tight to the armpits.
  • Hit the ground with your chest before your head.

Exercise 2

Most issues dumbbell rows happen when the spine is held in a flexed and rounded-back position, rather than a neutral position. Improper spine positioning causes the shoulder blade to move up instead of down when the upper back is rounded, which forces the upper traps to work instead of the lats.

Focus on keeping a long, tight spine during the movement, and you should feel the burn directly below your shoulder blade, into to your tailbone, and through the lats.

Breaking Down The Dumbbell Row
Watch The Video – 02:17

Dumbbell row coaching points
  • Take a wider stance than you think you need.
  • Keep the spine long and straight with the chest up.
  • Let the shoulder blade do the work. The wrist and elbow follow the shoulder.

Exercise 3

Problematic squatters generally fall into two camps: those who are stiff and tight, and those who are mobile but have trouble controlling the movement. I discussed squatting issues before in a power panel with my fellow strength training coaches, but this never-ending battle is always worth discussing.

Squatting is very technical and involves many moving parts. The best plan: Don’t jump into heavy weight too quickly. Start by doing bodyweight reps within your scope of control. Once you add weight, focus on getting comfortable at hitting depth and building a more effective range of motion.

Before you even think of going heavy, ensure that you can control the movement with your heels on the floor, hamstrings resting on your calves, and your torso positioned long and tall.

Squat Fix: Low Mobility
Watch The Video – 05:12

Squat coaching points
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and press evenly throughout.
  • Create force through the hips to drive the movement.
  • Lean the torso forward as your hips move into the rep.
  • Keep the core tense without restricting airflow.
  • Keep the shoulders vertical over the middle of the foot.

Exercise 4

The deadlift is a skill-based movement that takes reps and consistent practice to improve. Most common deadlifting issues derive from the spine doing too much work instead of the hips, which are supposed to drive the movement. The spine should be a rigid lever that transfers force from the legs and hips up through the arms, thereby moving the weight.

Get your core and shoulders tight and keep the spine stiff to assist the movement. The deadlift isn’t easy, but once you perfect your technique, you’d better believe it can be fun to lift a heavy weight off the ground.

Deadlift Tutorial
Watch The Video – 05:23

Deadlift coaching points
  • Keep the spine straight and drive the movement from your hips.
  • Set the bar close to your shins at the start of the movement and keep the shin vertical, without positioning the knee ahead of the bar.
  • Brace your abs, squeeze your arms down tight to your ribs, and stand tall without over-extending at lockout.

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Over 40 Amateur Of The Week: Jodi Shows No Signs Of Slowing Down

QHow did your fitness
journey begin?

I am the proud wife of a retired Air Force senior master sergeant. During the early years of our marriage, I stayed home with our children. My focus was on them, not on my fitness. When I returned to work, I took a high-visibility job that required long hours and frequent travel. My limited fitness went down the tubes in the face of airport food and stress. In 2009, the Air Force moved us to Phoenix, Arizona, where it jump-started an incredibly positive change in my life even if I didn’t know it at the time. A good friend of mine talked me into attending the high-intensity, functional fitness cross-training classes on base. At first, I was very skeptical and didn’t take it very seriously, but before I knew it I was in love. I loved how I felt and the transformation that took place.

After training for about six months, my friends encouraged me to enter a bodybuilding competition on base. I didn’t know a thing about nutrition or training for that kind of event, but I did it anyway. To my surprise, I came in second. This was only the beginning of my foray into bodybuilding.

As luck would have it, there was an Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders show in Phoenix the following weekend. On a whim, I entered. I got my butt kicked, although I still managed to come in seventh. Amazed and inspired by the incredible showings of the other competitors, I wanted to learn more and compete again.

My first step in the direction of serious competition was obvious: I’d buy a suit. I found a suit on eBay being sold by a competitor also in Phoenix. She and I arranged to meet at her gym so I could try the suit on before buying it. I ended up loving the suit and the owner of the gym, too! Mr. Tim Sparkes, the owner of Die Hard Gym and Fitness, agreed to take me on as a client. As they say, the rest is history.

He’s been a dear friend and coach. He still does all my nutrition, even though I moved to Alabama two and a half years ago.

Cool Fact

Jodi recently earned her CrossFit Level 1 Trainer certification and is a coach at CrossFit Montgomery.

What workout regimen delivered the best results?

A.M. Workout
  • Cardio Cross-TrainingCardio Cross-Training Cardio Cross-Training
    30 minutes calisthenics, plyometrics and intervals
A.M. Workout
  • Cardio Cross-TrainingCardio Cross-Training Cardio Cross-Training
    30 minutes calisthenics, plyometrics and intervals
A.M. Workout

What nutrition plan fueled your body?

Off Season Plan

  • Lean Protein Lean Protein
    4-6 ounces
  • Salad Vegetables Salad Vegetables
    Large helping
  • Green Vegetables Green Vegetables
    1-2 cups
  • Lean Protein Lean Protein
    4-6 ounces

Competition Prep Plan (8-12 Weeks Prior to Show)

What supplement schedule gave you the greatest gains?

“You have to be relentless in your training, your nutrition, your recovery and rest. All the factors have to be in balance. You have to give it 100 percent effort to be successful.”

How did your passion for fitness emerge?

Bodybuilding is an incredible test of willpower and motivation. It is a sport of control in which you control your results: You get exactly what you put in to it. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve done your very best, no matter what place you come in during competition. You have to be relentless in your training, your nutrition, your recovery and rest. All the factors have to be in balance, and you have to give it 100 percent effort to be successful.

What or who motivated you?

My husband of 18 years is my greatest motivation. He supports me and encourages me, even during the darkest days of dieting. Also, my trainer Tim Sparkes of Die Hard Gym and Fitness in Phoenix pushed me harder than I ever thought possible. He always believed in me.

Where did you go for inspiration?

Having a contest to train for is the best way to stay inspired. Any time I feel like skipping the gym I remind myself that I’ll be on stage, basically in my underwear, in front of hundreds of people. Am I willing to present less than my best? The answer is “no.”

“Am I willing to present less than my best? The answer is ‘no.'”

What are your future fitness plans?

I hope to continue to compete, but I’m considering a transition to fitness competition. Despite having no gymnastics or dance background, it’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I may be the worst fitness competitor ever, but I want to at least give it one shot.

What is the most important fitness tip?

This quote from Muhammad Ali always motivated me: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

Who is your favorite bodybuilder/fitness athlete?

Erin Stern is my favorite bodybuilder. She is an incredible athlete and real a class act. Plus her longevity in the sport is inspiring.

How did Bodybuilding.com help you reach your goals?

I have used resources from Bodybuilding.com in every stage of competition prep – from learning better form for lifting to reading how other competitors prepare to tips on choosing the right suit and even tanning.

Jodi’s Top 5 Gym Tracks

  1. “Here Comes the Boom” by P.O.D.
  2. “Get Low” by Ying Yang Twins
  3. “Heart of a Champion” by Nelly
  4. “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins
  5. “Killing in the Name Of” by Rage Against the Machine
Competition History
  • 2010 Luke Air Force Base Bodybuilding and Figure Competition 2nd place
  • 2010 Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders Arizona Natural 6th place
  • 2010 Fitness America 7th place
  • 2011 Luke Air Force Base Bodybuilding and Figure Competition 3rd place
  • 2011 National Physique Committee Western Regionals 3rd place
  • 2011 Heart of Dixie 2nd place
  • 2012 Panhandle Showdown N/A
  • 2013 Clash at the Capstone 1st place


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About The Author

Our Amateur Bodybuilder of the Week has the extraordinary qualities to endure the pain and discipline of bodybuilding. Enter here and win!

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